A dispatch from the Senate's first hearing on climate change.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 8 2009 1:59 PM

Hot Air Rising

The Senate opens its debate over climate change.

Photograph of demonstrators from Avaaz.org, trying to persuade Senators to "beef up" the climate bill.
Demonstrators from Avaaz.org, asking Senators to "beef up" the bill

Barbara Boxer and Jim Inhofe are one of the Senate's oddest couples. She drives a Prius. He drives a Hummer. She thinks climate change is an urgent problem. He thinks global warming is a hoax. She represents a state that went for Obama by 23 percentage points. His was the only state where John McCain won every county.

Yet the California Democrat and the Oklahoma Republican, chairman and former chairman, sit side-by-side on the environment and public works committee, which on Tuesday held its first hearing on climate-change legislation. With an unusually high senatorial turnout and a line of spectators that stretched down the hall—complete with activists dressed in muscle suits, urging senators to "beef up" the bill—Boxer and Inhofe drew their lines in the sand. From a legislative standpoint, the hearing was next to useless. But as a piece of political theater, it might have earned a Tony.

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"Today I expect you will hear fierce words of doubt and fear," Boxer said in her opening statement. "This is consistent with a pattern of 'No, we can't; no, we won't.' " Inhofe wanted none of it. "However you spin the debate, whatever schemes you concoct, the public will find out, and when they do, they will reject the schemes, and they will reject the spin," he said, characterizing the House's version of climate legislation as the "largest tax increase in American history."

Boxer turned to face him. "Senator, thank you for your constructive words," she said. She then proceeded to point out that the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill contains no tax increases but in fact includes tax credits.

"In the event that after every statement, you want to review, then we should have the chance to do the same thing," Inhofe grumbled.

"That's fair," Boxer replied sweetly. "I don't mind if you want to review."

"Oh, OK," he said, to titters in the audience, before explaining why he thinks the bill is indeed a tax: Consumers will have higher energy bills as companies pay more for the privilege to pollute.

There was a slight pause. "I stand by my comments," Boxer said, before calling the line of senators to speak.

By now, climate legislation is a worn and dusty battleground. Only last summer, the Senate had a knock-down fight over another climate bill, Lieberman-Warner, which perished during a hot summer in which gas prices hit $4 a gallon. This time, senators are working from the whopper of a bill that Speaker Nancy Pelosi cracked skulls to get through the House with only seven votes to spare.

For now, it's all on Boxer as she leads the effort to neutralize the forces of denial and send a bill to Congress by the end of the month. The first day of hearings featured no fewer than four Cabinet members, who spoke of sequestration, soil tillage, and parts per million. But at this point the issues aren't really at issue. Yesterday was a time for showy opening salvos.

"Given the problem of global warming as you see it, do you agree that this committee should do its job and move forward with a climate-change/green-jobs bill?" Boxer asked a panel of administration officials. Steven Chu (Energy), Lisa Jackson (EPA), Tom Vilsack (Agriculture), and Ken Salazar (Interior) all nodded.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey also had a "question." There are 62 million more cars on the road in America now than in 1990, he observed. "Could that cause air quality problems for us?"

"Absolutely," answered Jackson.

"Good," the senator replied. "I wasn't sure."

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island skipped the rhetorical questions, opting instead for a straight declarative. "This is the last place, other than the ExxonMobil boardroom, where sober people debate that global warming is real," he said.

Republicans went for theater as well as rhetoric—complete with props. Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri had an aide pile a stack of paper on the table next to him as he spoke, representing the drafts, amendments, and reports that went into the final House bill, until they towered over his head. And then, the finale: a blown-up diagram of Waxman-Markey, borrowed from House Minority Leader John Boehner's assault on the legislation, in lurid blue and yellow. "What needles are the majority trying to hide in the haystack?" Bond asked. "What backroom deals were made to buy support?"

After two hours, the senators had to break to be present for the swearing in of their new colleague Al Franken. Because of schedule conflicts, only Inhofe and John Barrasso of Wyoming returned to hear from Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, with whom they had an amiable chat about the catastrophic economic effects of cap-and-trade legislation.

After that, it was Boxer's turn to toss softballs at a panelist atypical for such events: John Fetterman, mayor of the town of Braddock, Pa. Clad in a black Dickies shirt and steelworker boots, he had tattoos up and down both forearms—one of Braddock's ZIP code and the others etching out the dates of homicides in his home community (none yet this year). Fetterman has latched onto cap-and-trade legislation as a way to replace the jobs his city lost from the demise of American manufacturing. And he's trying to bring his constituents along. Initially, he said, many of them saw environmentalists as "tree-huggers" and "thought you all wear Patagonia and drive Subarus," he told Boxer. Now, he said, he emphasizes that "there are 250 tons of steel in a windmill."

By this time, Boxer and Fetterman pretty much had the room to themselves, aside from the mayor's entourage: a small flock of young African-American kids who are working on the first "green roof" in the Monongahela Valley. They were props, too, though they probably didn't realize it. It was their first time in Washington, and, unlike the grandstanding senators, they said nothing.

Lydia DePillis is a writer living in New York.

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